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War in Yemen: a humanitarian disaster

The humanitarian crisis in war-torn north Yemen is “worse than ever,” the International Committee of the Red Cross warned today. Civilians, primarily women and very young children, remain at critical risk without much needed aid.

Over 200,000 Yemenis are estimated to be displaced by the fighting in Yemen’s Sa’ada War. The ICRC has provided food, water and essential aid to 75,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Sa’ada and Amran governorates, the group said.

UN refugee camps are woefully deficient of supplies including tents, mattresses and blankets as winter approaches. Dozens of children have frozen and starved to death in the refugee camps in recent months. Thousands of civilian refugees are beyond the reach of aid groups due to government restrictions and security concerns. Overall stocks of food, water and medicine in the governorate are dangerously low.

Saudis, Iraqis, Tribesmen and al Qaeda
The Sa’ada War began in 2004. After several failed ceasefires, the war resumed for the sixth time in August when the Yemen launched “Operation Scorched Earth,” a bombing campaign intended to decimate the Houthi rebels. Some of the refugees have been displaced several times since 2004.

The conflict intensified in November 2009 when Yemen gained air support from its northern neighbor, Saudi Arabia. Reacting to an incursion by the rebels, Saudis bombing intended to create a ten mile buffer zone on both sides of the border. Rebel forces claim Saudi bombing runs went much further into Yemeni territory and high rates of civilian casualties as a result. Saudi losses among ground forces number over 100. The rebels have distributed videos of Saudi and Yemen war planes and their aftermath.

Former Iraqi military members absorbed into the Yemeni military after the US invasion of Iraq are also on the ground in Sa’ada. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was a strong ally of Hussain, and the leadership of two administrations worked closely for decades.

Since 2005, activists, journalists and the rebels themselves alleged the Yemeni government is also deploying “former” members of al Qaeda as both trainers and fighters in the Sa’ada War. The editor of al Sahree newspaper was brought up on charges of revealing state secrets after the paper published an extensive report on the phenomenon. The Yemeni state media repeatedly publicized fatwas declaring the rebels are apostates and their deaths justified under Islamic law.

In 2007, the Yemeni government estimated 8000 tribesmen were also fighting for the state in loosely supervised militias. Concerns about these militias include lack of discipline and training in international laws of war. Reports of looting and atrocities have emerged although journalists have been banned from the region since 2004.

Collective Punishment

The ICRC stressed the urgency of “the unimpeded passage of humanitarian aid” in its statement today. A 2009 report by Human Rights Watch, entitled Invisible Civilians, said the Yemeni government’s denial of humanitarian access “appeared to rise to the level of collective punishment.”

Indiscriminate bombing by the Yemeni government targeted cities, villages, mosques. markets and hospitals where the rebels were thought hiding. Refugee camps have also been mistakenly bombed.

In September, 87 civilians sheltering under a bridge were killed by Yemeni war planes and dozens more wounded. The UN called for an investigation of the incident. Journalist Mohammed al Maqaleh who first reported the tragedy was kidnapped the next day. Last week, Yemeni authorities admitted al Maqaleh was in their custody.

Human Rights Watch also documented a nationwide pattern of arbitrary arrests of suspected sympathizers, including children, who appeared to be targeted for their religious identity. Zaidi mosque preachers have been replaced by Salafi preachers, and teachers and civil servants were dismissed from their jobs without cause, the rights group found. However, the conflict is inherently political, not sectarian.

The UN, EU and US have repeatedly called on the Yemeni government to declare a temporary cease fire in order to establish a humanitarian corridor for aid. Yemeni activists call the war “Yemen’s Darfur” in reference to the government blockade on food and medicine.

“It is vital that urgent steps be taken to provide effective protection for people adversely affected by the conflict and to allow them to receive the aid they sorely need,” said Dominik Stillhart, the ICRC’s deputy director of operations.

Rebel Forces

The Houthis are Zaidi Shiites, a quietest denomination distinct from the 12er Shiites in Iraq and Iran. The rebels allege government discrimination and marginalization arising from Yemeni support of the “Wahabbisation” of the Sa’ada governorate, the historical home of Zaidism. The Yemeni government alleges the rebels seek to re-establish a theocracy, a charge they deny.

The Houthi rebels are not connected to al Qaeda. Although the Yemeni government has repeatedly insisted that the group receives support from Iran, there is scant proof of such claims, leading diplomats and analysts to doubt their veracity.

A report by the International Crisis Group found that the Yemeni government’s conduct of the war encouraged recruitment to rebel forces. The Houthis began as a few hundred students in 2004 and are estimated to number over 10,000 today. Rights groups have raised concerns about child soldiers among the rebel forces.

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